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On April 7, 2021, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) issued eagerly anticipated guidance on administering COBRA subsidies under the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARPA). The guidance includes Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) and various Model Notices and election forms implementing the COBRA Premium Assistance provisions under ARPA, while also announcing the launch of a page dedicated to COBRA Premium Subsidy guidance on its website.
Since ARPA was enacted, employers have been preparing to comply, albeit with many open questions. ARPA requires that full COBRA premiums be subsidized for “Assistance Eligible Individuals” for periods of coverage between April 1, 2021, through September 30, 2021. While this guidance answers important questions on the administration of the subsidies, it does not address many other details on the minds of employers. For example, this guidance does not cover important nuances such as what is an “involuntary termination” in order to qualify for subsidized coverage, how existing separation agreement commitments to subsidize COBRA should be viewed, or details on how the corresponding payroll tax credit will work.
The FAQs are largely directed to individuals and focus on how to obtain the subsidy and how subsidized coverage fits with other types of health coverage that may be available, including Marketplace, Medicaid, and individual plan coverage. We hope that employer directed guidance will follow to fill in the gaps.
Employers will be happy to know that the FAQs confirm a few points that will impact administration. First, eligibility for coverage under another group health plan, including that of a spouse’s employer, will disqualify the employee from the subsidy. Employees must certify on election forms that they are not eligible for such coverage and will notify the employer if they subsequently become eligible for coverage (individual coverage, such as through the Marketplace or Medicaid, will not disqualify an otherwise eligible individual from subsidized COBRA). Failure to do so will subject the individual to a tax penalty of $250, or if the failure is fraudulent, the greater of $250 or 110% of the premium subsidy. The availability of other coverage (which the employer may not know about) does not impact the employer’s initial obligation to identify potential Assistance Eligible Individuals and provide the required notices and election forms.
Soon after enactment, there were also questions circling about whether ARPA applied to small employer plans not subject to COBRA, but rather state “mini-COBRA” laws. The FAQs confirm that the subsidy also applies to any continuation coverage required under state mini-COBRA laws but also notes that ARPA does not change time periods for elections under State law. Further guidance would be welcome on obligations related to small insured plans. The FAQs also confirm that plans sponsored by State or local governments subject to similar continuation requirements under the Public Health Service Act are covered by the ARPA subsidies.
One area that has caused great confusion is how the right to retroactively elect COBRA coverage (to the date active coverage was lost) due to the DOL’s extended deadlines fits with this new election right. While there is more to come on this, the DOL helpfully confirmed that these are two separate rights and thankfully, the FAQs note that the extended deadlines do not apply to the 60-day notice or election periods related to the ARPA subsidies.
The most significant part of the guidance (that we knew was coming but are still happy to see sooner rather than later) are the Model Notices and election materials. The guidance package confirms that employers have until May 31, 2021, to provide the notices of the opportunity to elect subsidized coverage and individuals have 60 days following the date that notice is provided to elect subsidized coverage. Individuals can begin subsidized coverage on the date of their election, or April 1, 2021, as long as the involuntary termination or reduction in hours supporting the election right occurred before April 1, 2021. As previously noted, in no way do these timeframes extend the otherwise applicable 18-month COBRA period.
The Notices include an ARPA General Notice and COBRA Continuation Coverage Election Notice, to be provided to all individuals who will lose coverage due to any COBRA qualifying event between April 1 and September 30, 2021, and a separate Model COBRA Continuation Coverage Notice in Connection with Extended Election Periods, to be provided to anyone who may be eligible for the subsidy due to involuntary termination or reduction in hours occurring before April 1, 2021 (i.e., generally involuntary terminations or reductions in hours occurring on or after October 1, 2019).
Plans will also have to provide individuals with a Notice of Expiration of Period of Premium Assistance 15-45 days before the expiration of the subsidy — essentially explaining that subsidies will soon expire, the ability to continue unsubsidized COBRA for any period remaining under the original 18-month coverage period and describing the coverage opportunities available through other avenues such as the Marketplace or Medicaid. Employers are highly encouraged to use the DOL’s model notices without customization except where required to insert plan or employer specific information.
With the release of the model notices, employers and COBRA administrators now largely have the tools to administer this new election right. The FAQs remind us that the DOL will ensure ARPA benefits are received by eligible individuals and employers will face an excise tax for failing to comply, which can be as much as $100 per qualified beneficiary (no more than $200 per family) for each day the employer is in violation for the COBRA rules. Accordingly, employers will want to begin or continue conversations with COBRA administrators to ensure notices are timely provided to the right group of individuals.
The health insurance Marketplace created by the Affordable Care Act (ACA) will open on October 1st. Most small employers (those with 50 or fewer full-time employees) are not required to offer health insurance coverage under ACA. Businesses with more than 50 full time employees have gotten a one year reprieve from the “pay or play” penalties. But all companies, regardless of size, are required to notify their employees about the Obamacare Marketplaces by October 1st.
The state and federal insurance exchanges are websites on which individuals and small businesses can shop for health plans. Though the deadline is less than a month away, many small businesses may not realize they have to notify employees of the existence of the Marketplace (aka Exchange). Many small business owners are unaware of this requirement or are under the misconception that it does not apply to them because they are too small to be governed by the health care reform law’s mandate. It is not clear how the requirement will be enforced yet, but penalties for businesses that do not comply could reach $100 per worker per day.
Some employers assume that because they are a small business who does not offer health insurance currently that the requirement does not apply to them. The Exchange notification requirement applies to any business regulated under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which covers all companies with at least one employee and $500,000 in annual revenue.
The U.S. Department of Labor has posted information about the notification requirement on its website and has provided model notices (in both English & Spanish) to be used by both employers who offer insurance and those who do not offer insurance.
The one to three page model notices can be downloaded, filled out, and printed, either for distribution in the workplace or for mailing to employees’ homes. Employees who are hired after October 1st must be provided the notice within 14 days of their date of hire with the company. Employees must be provided the notice, regardless of their enrollment status in the group’s medical plan. The safest route is to distribute the notice via U.S. mail or follow the instructions for distributing it electronically. Currently there is no requirement that states the employer must obtain signatures from employees confirming their receipt of the notice.
Please contact our office for more information on how to ensure you business is compliant with ACA requirements in 2014.
The DOL’s Employee Benefits Security Administration (EBSA) has made available Spanish language versions of model notices to employees of health coverage options. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) requires employers to provide employees with a notice of their health insurance coverage options available through the future health insurance exchanges no later than October 1, 2013. The English version of these model notices were released in May 2013.
Please contact our office for copies of the model notice(s) in English and/or Spanish.
A provision of Health Care Reform requires employers to provide a notice to all employees regarding the availability of health coverage options through the state-based exchanges. The Department of Labor delayed the original requirement that the notice be distributed by March 1, 2013, as it was determined that there was not enough information regarding exchange availability.
The DOL recently issued temporary guidance along with a model notice. The DOL has issued the model notice early so employers can begin informing their employees now about the upcoming coverage options through the marketplace.
Two model notices were released by the DOL. One is for employers who currently offer medical coverage and the other is for those who do not offer medical coverage.
Employers are required to issue the exchange coverage notice no later than October 1, 2013. This will coincide with the beginning of the open enrollment period for the marketplace.
The notice must be provided to all employees, regardless of their enrollment on the group health plan. It must be provided to both full time and part time employees as well. Employers are not required to provide a separate notice to dependents. Employers will need to provide the notice to each new employee (regardless of their status) who are hired on or after October 1, 2013 within 14 days of their hire.
An exchange coverage notice must include –
The DOL also modified its model COBRA election notice to include information about the availability of exchange coverage options and eliminate certain obsolete language in the earlier model.
Please contact our office for a copy of the model notice(s).